Tony winner Laura Benanti, who can be seen on "Nashville," "The Good Wife" and the forthcoming CBS series "Supergirl," will return as host of the 60th Annual Drama Desk Awards May 31 at Town Hall. Gretchen Shugart, who is the managing executive producer of the awards — which honor achievement on Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off Off-Broadway — said, "Laura Benanti was a fantastic host last year — bringing her brand of humor and charm to a wonderful evening. We are excited to welcome her back to Town Hall to lead us in our annual celebration of excellence in New York theatre." Last week, I had the pleasure of catching up with the golden-voiced singing actress, whose numerous credits include a Tony-winning turn opposite Patti LuPone in the 2008 revival of Gypsy, a recent stint with The Rockettes in New York Spring Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall and a standout performance in NBC's The Sound of Music Live! This queen of social media spoke about her many upcoming projects, including the Drama Desk Awards, "Supergirl," a collection of comedic essays due in fall 2016 from St. Martin's Press and next year's eagerly awaited Roundabout Theatre Company revival of the classic musical She Loves Me. My interview with the two-time Drama Desk Award winner (Gypsy, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) follows:
Question: Last year, you also hosted the Drama Desk Awards. How did that opportunity come about originally?
Laura Benanti: They just asked me if I would do it, and I said yes. [Laughs.]
Question: What was the experience like?
Laura Benanti: It was so fun. I really had a wonderful time. I really enjoy just being myself. That's why I like doing my concerts because I can just sort of be an idiot. [Laughs.] And my goal for the evening was to make it really feel like a fun event for my pals. I feel like, at this point, I've been in this industry for 17 years, and I know pretty much everybody, and I like almost everyone. So I wanted to make the Drama Desks feel like a party and less like a stressful awards show, in which people are jockeying to, you know, take over the world. [Laughs.] I wanted to make people laugh and contribute to their good times, and then they can get stressed out for the Tonys on their own.
Question: What is the preparation like for hosting? How involved are you?
Laura Benanti: I'm extremely involved. Last year, I wrote my monologue, most of my bits. And, then, Bill Rosenfield, who's a great guy and a great writer, he wrote a lot of the other stuff [delivered] throughout the course of the show that our presenters would read. This year, they let me be even more involved from the very beginning, in terms of writing the show. So, I'm excited about it. For me, it's pretty time consuming because I'm not just reading a teleprompter — because also we don’t have a teleprompter — but because I have to put a significant amount of time into writing the material.
Question: Will you also be singing or just speaking?
Laura Benanti: I'm not gonna be singing. I don't want to make it too much about me. I feel like my purpose there is to move things along and to be a funny distraction throughout the course of the show. But to take time out of the show to be like, “Now I'm gonna sing a number,” feels a little selfish.
Question: What was it like for you playing Radio City with the Spring Spectacular? What was it like playing that hall?
Laura Benanti: It was great. It was unlike anything I've ever been a part of before. I love the Rockettes, so getting to dance with them and being a part of that show was amazing. Performing to that many people is crazy. Hearing 6,000 people laugh and clap is a pretty thrilling sound. And it was relatively quick, and families really loved it, and it was great!
Question: They just released the trailer today for “Supergirl.” Tell me a bit about the role you’ll be playing and how you got involved.
Laura Benanti: Well, I’m not a series regular on the show. I have a recurring role. Greg Berlanti is one of the writers and show-runners of the show. I did “Eli Stone” with him many years ago, and he just called me and said, “We'd like you to play this character. We want her to be somebody that people can fall in love with and relate to, and devastated by the fact that she’s dead.” [Laughs.] And there's also a spoiler that I can’t tell you about, which is the main reason why I wanted to do this show, [but] they don’t show that in the trailer. But I can’t tell you about it. Top secret.
Question: Having done the first of the recent big TV musicals, “The Sound of Music," is there any musical you'd love to do?
Laura Benanti: Yeah, My Fair Lady. And, let's do that sh*t quick before I get too old! [Laughs.]
Question: Has there been any talk about doing that?
Laura Benanti: Nah. I’ve been talking about it. Does that count? I really thought after “The Sound of Music" they were going to be like, “What musical would you like to do, Laura Benanti?” But that didn't happen.
Question: I think we all thought that after your performance that that would be the case.
Laura Benanti: Yeah, Hollywood's not logical I’ve come to realize. Question: I know you’re used to doing eight shows a week live in front of an audience. What was the stress level of performing live on TV?
Laura Benanti: Weirdly, the higher the stakes for me, the less stress I feel. I don't know why. I don't know if it's a self-protection mechanism that I have, but I just wasn’t that nervous. And, I think that's why I was able to be playful and calm during the broadcast. And, first of all, I didn’t know 22 million people were going to tune in. But, for me, I just felt like, “Do what I did in rehearsals, and I'll be fine.”
Question: Tell me a little bit about the book of essays you have coming out.
Laura Benanti: Writing is a horrible process. I sit at my computer for hours. [Laughs.] It's going well though. I've gotten through my childhood chapters. I’m on to my grown-up chapters. It's not a Broadway book. It's not about my career. It's mostly tales from my life so that young women might be able to learn from some of my decision-making.
Question: Had you written much before?
Laura Benanti: Well, I mean, I’ve written tweets, which is how … my editor actually found me was on Twitter. He was like, “You should write a book.”…I've written a pilot and written little videos and sketches but not a book.
Question: When will you start rehearsals for She Loves Me, and what are your thoughts on taking on the role of Amalia?
Laura Benanti: We start rehearsals in December. I'm incredibly excited to play this part. I love the musical so much. I can't wait to sing those songs. Josh Radnor is fantastic. I love working with [director] Scott [Ellis], and Warren Carlyle will be choreographing. He choreographed the Spectacular, so I'm very much looking forward to it. And I haven’t been on Broadway since Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. That's a long time. I got to do Most Happy Fella at Encores!, which was so gratifying and felt amazing, but that was only a weekend.
Question: Was there any talk of transferring that? It received such glowing notices.
Laura Benanti: There was and then it just sort of went away, much to my sadness —I don't know, maybe they just didn't think it was a sure thing. I think the climate can be a little difficult on Broadway for shows that aren't like, “It's an explosion of pop music coming at your face!”
Question: It seems like it would be good for Roundabout or one of those theatre companies rather than—
Laura Benanti: A commercial producer, yeah.
Question: You said rehearsals start in December. How far in advance do you start working on material or do you wait until rehearsals?
Laura Benanti: I already know the score. I don't have it memorized, but I'm very, very familiar with the material. I've read the book — all of that, so I'll start working probably six weeks before we go into rehearsal.
Question: What else is coming up for you? You're doing the Memorial Day concert...
Laura Benanti: Yeah, I'm doing the Memorial Day concert down in D.C. Then I fly to San Francisco and I do a gala concert down there. I'm performing with the Gay Men's Chorus in Boston in June. I’m writing my book. I’m writing a pilot…And, then, I'm waiting to see what my schedule is for “Supergirl.” And some other things I also can't talk about. I’m so sorry. I know that's so annoying. [Laughs.] Question: You started out on stage and now you're doing a lot more TV. What is the TV work like for you? Do you enjoy that?
Laura Benanti: I do. You know, my heart is always in the theatre. I love performing for a live audience. I love the excitement of it. The super-long days on a TV set aren't my jam—aren't my favorite. But I certainly do enjoy the work because it's so different. It requires a different level of concentration, and it requires the ultimate truth because the camera is a lie detector. If you aren't dropped in your body and if you're not coming from a place of truth, then you're acting is bad. I've seen some of my work, and I know that I was just sort of phoning it in, and I was like, "Oof. That was not good.” And then I've seen work where I'm like, “Oh, I’m proud of that.”
Tickets to the 60th Annual Drama Desk Awards are available to the general public at dramadeskawards.com.
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Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.